the beauty and the sorrow


Mr. Englund’s book is a deviation from standard history books. It is a corrective too to the notion that World War I was only about the dire trench warfare on the Western Front. “The Beauty and the Sorrow” expertly pans across other theaters of war: the Alps, the Balkans, the Eastern Front, Mesopotamia, East Africa. Soldiers in this book have beehives fall on them; one has Christmas in Egypt under the pyramids; tsetse flies are an intractable problem. This is a moving book, almost from the start. War floods these people’s lives like a natural catastrophe, a Hurricane Katrina that reeks of cordite. When cannon fire is heard in the distance, and you are a woman at home with your children, do you stay or flee? Who is coming, anyway? Almost no one understands what’s happening, even why this war is to be fought. “Lack of facts,” Mr. Englund observes, “has been padded out with guesses, suppositions, hopes, fears, idées fixes, conspiracy theories, dreams, nightmares and rumors.” “The Beauty and the Sorrow” follows individuals like Florence Farmborough, an English nurse in the Russian Army, and Richard Stumpf, a young German high-seas fleet seaman. Their stories are mostly taken from memoirs, letters and other already published material. The accounts of their lives can be terrifying or stirring, but are most fully alive in Mr. Englund’s accumulation of small moments, stray details.

more from Dwight Garner at the NY Times here.